Are You Sure That Holiday Turkey Is 'Free Range'?

It is likely that some of the "free range" chicken and turkey purchased this holiday season came from birds who never stepped outside.

When the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) recently asked consumers what they thought the claim "free range" meant, the following picture emerged: all birds have the chance to go outside during daylight hours; the outdoor space has vegetation and is large enough to accommodate all birds; and when outdoors, birds have access to shade and protection from bad weather and predators. Sounds appropriate.

Unfortunately -- and probably not surprisingly -- that is not the definition used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates use of the "free range" claim. According to the USDA, poultry producers can use the claim as long as they can show that the birds had "access to the outside." Various USDA labeling guidance documents offer inconsistent definitions for the free range claim. While some clarify that outdoor access must be "continuous, free," others do not.

In any case, "continuous, free access" is not defined, and none of the guidance documents contain requirements for the number or type of exits to the outside, the size of the outdoor space, or the amount of vegetation provided. Technically, producers could provide birds with occasional access to a barren lot that only fits a small number of birds, and still be approved for use of the claim.

On top of its vague definition for "free range," the USDA also has a flawed approval process for the claim. No visits are made to farms to verify that birds actually go outside. Producers are merely required to submit a short application and copy of the requested label, in addition to a description of how the birds are housed.

In 2011, AWI requested label approval files for a few dozen brand-name poultry products from the USDA. (The records eventually arrived four years later -- after AWI sued the department for undue delay.) The files showed that the USDA approves a wide variety of bird-housing conditions for the "free range" claim. For 44 of the 88 products reviewed by AWI, the USDA approved use of the claim when producers only submitted a brief statement that birds have "outdoor access." According to the records, the USDA also approved the claim for 17 of the 88 products without any evidence whatsoever to support the claim.

Free range claims for the remainder of the products investigated were substantiated by third-party certification, either alone or in combination with an affidavit. Third-party certificates can shed light on how producers raise animals. However, in this case, they are of limited value because a majority of the third-party certificates supplied by producers do not satisfy the USDA definition of free range. The certifications either do not require any outdoor access for birds, or do not require that all birds be able to go out simultaneously.

For example, USDA Organic certification was used to substantiate the claim on five free range products. That would be fine, if not for the decision by the National Organic Program to allow the use of enclosed porches (with solid roofs and floors) to qualify as outdoor access. Porches are hardly consistent with the free range concept, or the organic concept for that matter. What's more, according to the USDA labeling office, porches do not qualify as "continuous, free access" to the outside.

To make matters worse, the USDA does not require producers to actually meet its vague definition of "free range." According to the department, a producer can keep birds indoors for adverse weather or other reasons and still use the claim, as long as the package states how many days the bird had access to the outdoors (if birds did not have the opportunity to go out for at least 51 percent of their lives). While researching free range claims over a five-year period -- and examining hundreds of different free range labels in the process -- AWI did not encounter a single label that contained this information. Even if producers were to include this information on the label, it is unlikely consumers would appreciate its significance.

A recent undercover investigation of Diestel Farms, a major producer of "range grown" turkey, by the organization Direct Action Everywhere confirms this problem. The investigation found turkeys cooped up by the thousands with no apparent outdoor access, and the company admitted that the birds had been kept indoors for an extended period this year due to the threat of avian influenza. The USDA refused to respond to a question posed by AWI on its webpage askFSIS about whether poultry producers, such as Diestel Farms, must remove the claim on meat originating from flocks of birds that never had the chance to go outside.

It is understandable that producers may need to keep birds indoors under certain circumstances, but when this happens, the claim should not appear on the product -- and consumers should not be paying more for a benefit to animals that does not exist.

AWI is not alone in its criticism of the free range claim. Consumer Reports' "Label Report Card" opines that the "free range" label is not meaningful because it is inconsistent and not independently verified. MarketWatch warns consumers to be skeptical of the "free range" claim because it is loosely regulated and not third-party verified. Additionally, BuyingPoultry.com, a new web resource that evaluates the animal welfare benefits of various poultry products and label claims, assigns the "free range" claim a "D" rating.

AWI will be asking the USDA to improve both the "free range" definition and the process it uses to approve the claim.

In the meantime, what's a caring, conscientious consumer to do? Unfortunately options are limited. One can investigate local, pasture-based farms and inquire about their animal raising practices, or check out the recommendations offered at BuyingPoultry.com. Then there is the option of leaving meat off the menu entirely and choosing a vegetarian or vegan main dish for your holiday meals.